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Tucson Weekly Deadly Intentions

Is State-Sanctioned Killing Any More Sane Than Tim McVeigh's Crime?

By Jeff Smith

HOW MANY TIMES do I have to tell you that capital punishment doesn't work?

You think Tim McVeigh ever heard of Gary Gilmore? I expect he did. Think it slowed Tim up at all, convinced him to rent a smaller Ryder truck, buy a couple tons less fertilizer, blow up fewer folks?

I don't believe the certain knowledge that he could be executed for blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City meant anything either way to Tim McVeigh, because Tim McVeigh is nuts. Everybody who kills somebody is nuts. At least for a little while. At least somewhat.

Killing another human being--whether it be murder, act of war, incidental outcome of negligent behavior or public execution--simply isn't the act of someone with both oars in the water. And the more time you have to spend thinking about it, the crazier you have to be to do it. This flies in the face of legal definitions of sanity, where such definitions apply to capital crimes, but I submit to you that the statutes have it bass-ackwards. Murder that is cold-blooded and pre-meditated is generally ruled to be the act of a sane person, because the planning involved flatters our self-image as a rational animal.

Killing in hot blood, spur-of-the-moment, heat of passion, that sort of thing, is regarded by the courts as less serious, an act of sudden temper if not temporary insanity.

This is 180 degrees out of whack. But it does not matter where issues of capital punishment and deterrence are concerned. Anybody twisted enough to spend time planning a murder is too far removed from the mainstream to believe such proscriptions apply to him anyway; and anyone so stirred by emotion to kill in a moment of passion has neither the time nor the calm to consider consequences. Like I said: Killing people is nuts. But this is not to say that it is not sometimes necessary.

Sometimes emergencies arise requiring that somebody gets whacked.

Your sudden hostage-taking is a pretty good example. Terrorist grabs a small child, holds a knife to its throat, and says to whom it may concern that unless X dollars are forthcoming or X somebody is released from jail, the kid gets it. This situation calls for an immediate bullet in the terrorist's brain. End of story.

Wars are sometimes situations that present continuing or continuous emergencies, often in multiples. Whole nations, races, religions can be lost to wars, and sometimes the good guys have to kill enough of the bad guys to get them to quit.

In a sane world this would not be so. But we have not yet experienced a sane world. Crazy though our existing world may be, where there is time enough for thought and discussion, and the situation is not a major crisis, killing one another is not necessary. Left alone, even the most troublesome among us will eventually fall over dead.

Thus, taking all the foregoing truths into collective evidence, it becomes obvious that the most pre-meditated, most deliberate, most cold-blooded; the least crisis-driven, least necessary, least justifiable sort of homicide is capital punishment. It is nothing less than state-sponsored murder. In the first degree, to the second power.

Can you think of anything crazier than Timothy McVeigh deciding to fill a truck full of fertilizer and gasoline, and killing everybody he could inside the Murrah Building, to express his moral indignation over federal conduct at Waco and Ruby Ridge? I can. It's We The People believing we're doing the right thing, and making the United States a safer and more wholesome place to live and raise our children, by ritualistically putting Timothy McVeigh to death.

Do you know they send out formal invitations, like at your wedding or Bar Mitzvah, to state executions? True fact. And they serve refreshments--coffee, punch and cookies, it all depends on who's doing the planning and catering, but there are formal protocols that are written down and followed. I wonder if Emily Post has a chapter on what to wear and whom to sit next to at a hanging.

What sort of grotesque twist on morality, power and respect for authority do you suppose this gussied-up, grown-up ritual of death imparts to our children?

If you do the worst thing imaginable, commit the most serious crime in the law books, the worst sin in the Bible, Old or New Testament, or the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Cub Scout manual, the highest authority in the land will do the same terrible thing to you. Long after you've been taken out of circulation and locked away in jail. When the emergency is past and you're no longer a threat to public safety. And they'll invite your family and friends, and members of the press. And they'll get snacks to munch while they watch their paid employees kill you.

Because we are a nation of laws, not of men. And because while we have no state religion, we are a God-fearing nation. Bullshit.

I do not doubt that Timothy McVeigh bought the stuff and rented the truck and drove it into Oklahoma City and blew up that building, killing all those innocent people. I don't doubt for a second that the world would be a better place without Tim McVeigh and everyone like him. Sure he deserves to die.

But we who go about our lives doing nothing more heroic than working for the rent money, raising our kids, paying our taxes and casting our votes, do not deserve to have to kill him. We should not be forced to be party to putting a rope around his neck, a bullet through his heart, a lethal needle in his vein or a jolt of electricity through his body.

I wouldn't want to do it. And I'd sure as hell rather see my children clean porta-potties with their bare hands than have to drop the dime on Tim McVeigh, or anybody else.

Perhaps the best test of public policy and civic action is the do-it-yourself standard. If a job is so dirty you have to hire it out, so distasteful you don't want to watch it being done, so twisted you have to wonder at the sanity of anyone who would seek such a career...

...well then maybe it's something that shouldn't be done.

Besides which it's cheaper to keep the sonofabitch locked up, making license plates for life.

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